Looking back on 2018, one of the most surprising, and encouraging, developments was the groundswell among both politicians and voters in support of requiring criminal jurors to be unanimous in order to hand down convictions.
That’s not just because it’s good policy, although it absolutely is.
The previous requirement that just 10 of 12 jurors had to agree was a remnant of the Jim Crow era that continued to produce racially disparate results, according to some eye-opening reporting by an investigative team at The Advocate. The constitutional amendment to make the change at first seemed like a reach, even to its author, state Sen. JP Morrell, D-New Orleans. Instead, with some key words of encouragement from Republicans such as state Sen. Dan Claitor, a onetime prosecutor who represents Baton Rouge, it rocketed out of the Legislature and onto the November ballot, where it won easy approval, 64 percent-36 percent.
The amendment’s success is also worth studying because of how it happened.
Rather than getting swallowed up by typical partisan politics, the exact opposite occurred with the measure. The amendment quickly became a common cause for people who far too often can’t find a thing in common. Social justice advocates supported it, highlighting the status quo’s racist past and present. Constitutional conservatives did too, on the theory that the state’s ability to imprison someone even if one or two jurors reasonably doubt their guilt is the ultimate government overreach.
What emerged was a coalition that included people who come from different angles, but accept one another’s arguments and agree that, say, social justice and small-government orthodoxy don’t have to be mutually exclusive. It included politicians who can too often retreat to their own partisan camps, but in this case spoke warmly and respectfully of one another. There was so much goodwill flowing that it was almost disorienting.
And instead of fear-mongering and name-calling, voters were treated to a constructive conversation over basic fairness and the founders’ original intent, and they responded accordingly.
A few things are worth noting here. One is that the bones of this coalition were already in place, courtesy of the previous year’s bipartisan effort to pass a prison reform package aimed at reducing Louisiana’s once nation-leading prison population and helping nonviolent offenders lead productive lives on the outside. This group, which included activists motivated by restoring communities devastated by mass incarceration, by a religious commitment to second chances, and by a libertarian belief that government spends too much locking people up, basically reactivated in support of the unanimous jury campaign.
And this isn’t just happening in Louisiana. Just last week, the U.S. Senate passed a similar criminal justice bill even as a shutdown loomed. U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, an increasingly lonely outlier, tried to torpedo it, but his Republican colleague Bill Cassidy was all in, as were Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and Republican President Donald Trump.
A reexamination of crime and appropriate punishment is also playing out in other states. On the same day that Louisiana voters opted for unanimous juries, Florida voters who were closely divided on their choices for governor and senator easily passed a measure restoring voting rights to convicted felons who’ve done their time.
Similar issues will likely come into play in the 2020 contest for Orleans Parish district attorney, as they have in recent elections for big-city prosecutors nationwide.
It’s not really obvious why this is the issue where divisions that often seem so entrenched are breaking down. But the fact that it can still happen in these impossibly divided times is stirring, and makes you wonder whether the same thing can happen on issues beyond criminal justice.
In 2019, maybe we should all try to find out.